Day 6

Get ready for the Cybathlon, the world's first cyborg Olympics

This week, Switzerland announced it will hold the first cyborg Olympics this fall. The Cybathlon is a competition that celebrates the fusion of human ability and technology — a competition of athletic performance and design. Brent speaks to former Canadian Paralympian skier Dan Letain about getting ready to compete in the Powered Arm Prosthesis Race.
Danny Letain at the Cybatholon trial in Zurich, July 2015. (ETH Zurich/Allesandro Della Bella)

For the first time in his life, Danny Letain says he almost feels like he has his left arm back. 

"The arm that we're running now, we're actually able to run all fingers independently," he tells Host Brent Bambury, "and I've never, ever been able to run five fingers in my entire life on my left hand."

Letain, a former Canadian Paralympic skier who lost his left arm below the elbow in 1980, is training for the first ever Cybathlon, an Olympic Games-like competition in which humans and robots team up to compete. 

It's a bit like the Paralympics, because the contenders (called "pilots") are disabled. But unlike the Paralympics, which focuses strictly on athletic skill, the Cybathlon requires both human performance and technological design. 

"This competition is novel because it's the first time that robotic technologies are allowed to be used to compete against each other," says Robert Riener, a robotics professor at ETH Zurich University, who came up with the idea for the Cybathalon. "And this way people with most severe disabilities can participate."

The first of its kind

Switzerland will host the first Cybathlon in October. Eighty teams from two dozen countries, including Letain's team M.A.S.S. Impact, are honing bodies and machines to compete. 

There are six events. People of various disabilities wearing prosthetics or exoskeletons will race over obstacle courses. Others will wear skull caps covered in electrodes so they can play computer games with their brains.

Letain will compete in the Powered Arm Prosthesis Race, and while he's tried using robotic arms before, he tells Bambury that nothing compares with the one he'll wear for the Cybathlon.

"It's an entirely new technology that has never been introduced to the world before called force myography." - Danny Letain

A team of researchers from Simon Fraser University designed the arm. It looks like a piece of Iron Man's suit, and Danny controls it through the muscles in his arm that used to connect to his fingers. 

"For me, I feel that my left hand is seven and a half inches back into my stump. And when I move my fingers, you actually see the muscles in the stump move."

Danny says he thinks his biggest competition is Germany. And when Bambury asks if a technology-assisted athlete might one day beat an unassisted human by running a one-minute mile or a three-hour marathon, he answers that with the way robotics is going, "anything's possible."